After catching a rebroadcast of Episode Eight last Saturday, I looked at the chi-improv mailing list to see if there were any threads on the documentary series -- there had been nothing in the previous weeks, which seemed a little odd to me. But someone had finally started a thread, and one message directed me to a whole bunch of posts over at jazzcorner.com, including a thread inspired by Keith Jarrett's angry letter to the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times...
To the Editor:
Regarding Ken Burns's (or is it Wynton Marsalis's?) "Jazz": Now that we've been
put through the socioeconomic racial forensics of a jazz-illiterate historian and a
self- imposed jazz expert prone to sophomoric generalizations and
ultraconservative politically correct (for now) utterances, not to mention a terribly
heavy-handed narration (where every detail takes on the importance of major
revelation) and weepy-eyed nostalgic reveries, can we have some films about jazz
by people who actually know and understand the music itself and are willing to deal
comprehensively with the last 40 years of this richest of American treasures?
JAZZ IS DEAD AT 60. (Why, I remember reading the obit in the Herald-Tribune, on muh dadduh's knee in Kennebunkport). Jazz-as-a-corpse is a useful thing to those who have to sell it, whether in Burns' case, to corporate underwriters, or in Marsalis' case, to the patrons of Lincoln Center (and the larger audience of those who "support the arts" with their checks and credit cards), or in the cases of jazz-club owners, festival promoters, public radio, and large recording companies. Why is the corpse useful to all these people? Because it's no longer a moving target; you can enbalm it as you like and then put it on display, free of any changes, surprises, unpleasantries, or rough edges that might make the music unmarketable to your target audience, be it the Mrs. Rittenhouses of the world "supporting the arts", yuppies in need of "classy stuff" for their lifestyle scavenger hunts, or the WorldWide Widget Corp, LLC, who want to show that they're not just a plain old widget conglomerate any more.
Jazz, which, in the space of a century, has had its Bach, its Mozart, its Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Schönberg, Stravinsky, and Stockhausen, is a hard subject to fit into 17½ hours of documentary
, and it's a sucker's bet
to even attempt to do so. Burns had the added handicap of not knowing a thing about the music; unfortunately, he seems to have gotten his education quickly, from the "evil trinity" of Wynton and his mentor/sidekicks, Albert Murray
and Stanley Crouch
, who have the propensity to dismiss some of the most fertile (jazz) musics of the last forty years as "un-jazz" and "chaotic avant-garde
crap". In other words, it was OK for jazz to have innovation
for its first few generations, because this formed the canon of eternal verities of the music; those who, since this arbitrary stopping point, have innovated have transgressed the equally arbitrary dividing line between jazz and not-jazz. It's an attitude that has been ridiculed in previous generations; their likes may have been labeled "squares" or "moldy figs" for not being "with it", man
. But this triumverate
is different, mainly because they're
black, I'd imagine -- they have some sort of God-given authority not only to dismiss the New, but to eviscerate a chunk of history, as opposed to those conservative white jazz writers and promoters of previous eras. By playing the race card
, couched in the negritude
card, Crouch/Murray/Wynton innoculate themselves from all criticism. But just like the white tastemakers of the past, the Leonard Feather
s, George Wein
s, and Norman Granz
es of this demimonde, they've had a (somewhat-)mass-medium bully pulpit
from which to do their deeds, beginning with Wynton's once-lucrative CBS
) record deal; Burns' film is both icing on the cake
and the widest exposure they've had yet.
(Ironically, Crouch arrived in New York City in the 70's -- from Los Angeles -- as a free-jazz drummer, the sort that he'd now shun, with the likes of his homeboys Black Arthur Blythe and David Murray, who'd made the cross-country trek to find fame and fortune -- successfully, at least in jazz terms. Crouch, the aspiring sometime-writer, later went the writing route full time, after failing to be more than an "I-gigged-with-David-and-Arthur" footnote in jazz history).
While the dismissive attitude ruins Episode Ten here and there, and paints a deliberately incomplete and inaccurate picture of later jazz history, it doesn't completely take away from the fun of the series; to their credit, Ornette Coleman
's first couple of years in New York
gets decent-sized coverage in Episode Nine, and John Coltrane's musical/spiritual quest is covered in both Nine and Ten (stopping, conservative
ly, at A Love Supreme
) -- so even if the "avant-garde
" only gets attention via its two largest figures (Episode Nine opened nicely, with footage of Eisenhower
-era suburbia, while "Giant Steps" and an early Ornette tune oozed incongruously through the TV speakers), at least it didn't get ignored or distorted or blackballed completely.
The problem, according to the mailing-list/bulletin-board/newsgroup posters (and to me, the eternal lurker) was that huge swatches of the last 40 years were ignored, a period in which many jazzes were going on simultaneously, the density of which was previously unheard of; while jazz was no longer in the mainstream (as in the Jazz Age and swing era), and thus worthy of attention in the Americana myth-making department, there was much more going on in those years than in the previous 60 years that dominate the documentary and most people's perception of what jazz is. And the most exciting, innovative parts of that density were pretty much ignored in Episode Ten, accompanied by the mean-spirited, Wynton/Murray/Crouch-approved myth-making that there was little going on in the jazz world until the teenaged Saint Wynton first stepped onto the stage with Art Blakey. It just isn't true -- yes, people received Dexter Gordon's return from Copenhagen in the mid-70's like he was six-feet-five of manna from heaven, and his stateside peers from Blue Mitchell to Kenny Barron to Hank Jones had to rely on Japanese and German record companies to keep their music in the tiny jazz marketplace, but this jazz-was-dying myth just isn't true unless you willfully ignore the varied post-Coltrane, post-Ornette musics coming from the musicians of the AACM, the free improvisors all across the US and Europe (Cecil Taylor, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, the musicians around Globe Unity and those who coalesced around NYC's loft jazz scenes, and many, many more), and the utterly mainstream, yet wonderfully rocking sounds that came from McCoy Tyner's various bands during those very same "dire" years. These are also the years where the Burns team should have slipped in a mention of Jarrett, who, after leaving Miles (and electric keyboards), was performing big-deal (but not my cup of tea) solo piano concerts around the world (and on Saturday Night Live) and had the best mainstream quartet of the era. Jarrett, was nowhere to be seen in the entire series; even when the camera panned across a photo of one of Miles' electric bands, the forearm in the background playing the Fender organ belonged, I'm fairly sure, to Chick Corea. There was no mention at all of Sun Ra, who was in wonderful form back then, becoming more and more adept at tying together the various strands of his career, from the swing era, to bop, to gospel, to free jazz.
Episode Ten ends with a whimper -- hit-and-run glowing looks at major-label-approved youngish artistes like Joshua Redman, Regina Carter, and Cassandra Wilson, the last appearing in her guise as the greatest intelligent rock chantoozy since Joni Mitchell (surely a sign of jazz's dead-ness that they'd show Wilson in that way), plus statements about how "wonderful" it is that jazz cross-fertilizes with other media such as hip-hop and Afro-Caribbean sounds -- isn't that also a sign of jazz's dead-ness that it has to feed off of more-popular musics? But the whimper fades out, and there's this great montage of the big names in the series -- film and video clips from Louis to Benny to Miles to Trane and others, seamlessly edited, jumping back and forth from era to era, and it's great. You forget the politics that tainted the latter portions of the series, and just enjoy. And maybe you want to see it again.
Once the anger subsides, that is.
Jazz is the ongoing story of three individuals, who appear in most, if not all of the episodes: 1) Louis Armstrong, who essentially invented jazz melody and soloing; 2) Duke Ellington, who essentially invented the jazz orchestra and the notion of jazz being a sophisticated medium; and 3) Wynton Marsalis, who essentially reinvented jazz as a fit-for-Lincoln-Center staid, fossilized museum piece (and fit for Brooks Brothers suits). Marsalis steals the show on many occasions, with, for example, a demonstration, on trumpet, of the melody from Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" and a dead solid perfect imitation of his former employer Blakey's oratory. At least three of the Marsalis brothers (Lord Wynton, Branford, and Delfeayo) have the wit and intelligence to be great talk show hosts, and this documentary was Wynton's audition, of sorts.
And the series is, often quietly, about race/racism in the US, etc, etc, etc., also an ongoing tale. And it's about money and politics, in that only a Ken Burns™ film about jazz, one that errs on the side of the Wynton/Jazz-at-Lincoln-Center neo-conservative worldview, essentially burying and/or insulting all those unsightly radicals (both musical and political) who've defined the musical landscape of their eras in much the same way as Louis, Bird, the Count, the Duke, etc., could receive the sort of funding necessary for such a grand undertaking.
Part of jazz history, at least from Charlie Parker onward, is about the jazz establishment pinning the label of "anti-jazz" on people who extend the musical tradition -- in this case Burns & Co. are subtly also pinning the label of "murderers (of jazz)" on the very groups of musicians and composers they should have been extolling. Abbey Lincoln, though she's painted as a still-angry-after-40-years hothead shrew in her brief interview excerpts, might have been more on the mark in pointing the blame at the Beatles-era record industry -- they saw four moptop Pied Pipers, a horde of screaming gurls with disposable income from mommyanddaddy, and dollar-signs lit up in their collective heads. The moguls gravitated to where the money was, and left jazz (now more a pure art form than it had ever been in its history) hanging.
A more honest title for the series might be Jazz, Part One (1900-1960), and on those terms, it's very, very good; you laugh, you cry -- with accounts of the last days of Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday, for instance; you learn a thing or two, you get new angles on stories you've heard for years and years. For me it was great, because my main interest has always been roughly from 1945 to today, and much time was devoted to placing the pre-1945 jazz world in perspective. Jazz, Part One was excellent, except for minor quibbles like ignoring Europe, other than as a place where American jazz musicians go to live, work, and receive adulation -- that ignores the soloists of le Quintette du Hot Club, namely Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, not to mention the scores of modern-day musicians, a boom in homegrown talent that began, of course, after 1960, after jazz died.
Unfortunately, a part two would never get the necessary corporate sponsorship for Burns, PBS, and the record-industry partners to pull it off (Sun Ra! Derek Bailey! Peter Brotzmann! The October Revolution! Sam Rivers! Amiri Baraka! All on this ten-CD set!). But in the real world, part two is up to you; there are oodles of smaller documentaries out there, on people like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, etc. (I wonder if there's an Eric Dolphy film out there, since he was inexplicably totally ignored in the series). There's a Canadian film from the 80's called Imagine the Sound, with profiles of (IIRC) Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, and (the Canadian content portion of our programme) Paul Bley. There's tons of footage out there -- if Burns can offer snippets of Cecil or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, seemingly only for the purpose of having the voiceovers and third-person interviewees insult them and lie about them, surely those snippets come from films, videos, television appearances. The truest Part Two would be a sprawling mess of footage for you to enjoy -- cut out the middle man and his corporate sponsors and find out for yourself what got left out. (You can also grab the PDFs from the Jazz website pbs.org/jazz, to see what words ended up on the cutting-room floor).
But if there is a Jazz, Part Two (this time it's personal boogaloo) fer th' luv o' gawd, let Carla Bley produce it.